What does the Bible say about free will?
What does the Bible say about man’s free will? What does it mean to be free to make choices? How can we make our own choices and God still be sovereign and all knowing? How free are we in light of God’s will? Can man do everything he chooses? These are questions that have sparked debate for decades.
Understanding the relationship between man’s will and God’s will is extremely important. Martin Luther explained that misunderstanding this is to misunderstand the Sola Gratia doctrine of the Reformation. He said, “If anyone ascribes salvation to the will, even in the least, he knows nothing of grace and has not understood Jesus aright.”
Christian quotes about free will
“Free will without God’s grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” Martin Luther
“The sin both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave us free will.” C. S. Lewis
“Those who speak on mans free will, and insist upon his inherent power to either accept or reject the Savior, do but voice their ignorance of the real condition of Adam’s fallen children.” A.W. Pink
“Free will carried many a soul to hell, but never a soul to heaven.” Charles Spurgeon
“We believe, that the work of regeneration, conversion, sanctification and faith, is not an act of man’s free will and power, but of the mighty, efficacious and irresistible grace of God.” Charles Spurgeon
“Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have always met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in the blessed bonds of grace.” Charles Spurgeon
“Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in blessed bonds of grace.” Charles Spurgeon
“Free-will doctrine-what does it? It magnifies man into God. It declares God’s purposes a nullity, since they cannot be carried out unless men are willing. It makes God’s will a waiting servant to the will of man, and the whole covenant of grace dependent on human action. Denying election on the ground of injustice, it holds God to be a debtor to sinners.” Charles Spurgeon
“Let all the ‘free-will’ in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength.” Martin Luther
“We are able to persevere only because God works within us, within our free wills. And because God is at work in us, we are certain to persevere. The decrees of God concerning election are immutable. They do not change, because He does not change. All whom He justifies He glorifies. None of the elect has ever been lost.” R. C. Sproul
“Just so we’re clear the words “free will” are not actually in the Bible. Predestination, on the other hand…” — R. C. Sproul, Jr.
“The neutral view of free will is impossible. It involves choice without desire.” — R.C. Sproul
Free will and God’s sovereignty
Let’s take a look at a few verses that talk about free will and God’s sovereignty.
1. Romans 7:19 “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”
2. Proverbs 16:9 “The mind of the man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
3. Leviticus 18:5 “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.”
4. 1 John 3:19-20 “We will know by this that we are of the truth and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
What is free will in the Bible?
“Free will” is a term that gets tossed around in conversations with a wide gamut of meanings. In order to understand this from a biblical worldview, we need to have a solid foundation built upon understanding the term. Jonathan Edwards said that the will is the mind choosing.
Here are several variations of free will discussed in theological debates. Here is a brief rundown of information regarding free will:
- Our “will” is the function of our choosing. Essentially, how we make choices. How these acts are determined can be looked at either by Determinism or Indeterminism. This, combined with viewing God’s Sovereignty as either Specific or General will determine what type of Free Will viewpoint you adhere to.
- Indeterminism means free acts are not determined.
- Determinism says that everything has been determined.
- God’s General Sovereignty says that God is in charge of everything but does not control everything.
- God’s Specific Sovereignty says that He not only has ordained everything, but He also controls everything.
- Compatibilism Free Will is one side of the debate says that determinism and human free will are compatible. In this side of the debate, our free will is entirely corrupt by our fallen human nature and man cannot choose contrary to his nature. Simply, that Providence and God’s Sovereignty is completely compatible with mans voluntary choices. Our choices are not coerced.
- Libertarian Free Will is the other side of the debate, it says that our free will is affection by our fallen human nature, but man still has the ability to choose contrary to his fallen nature
Free will a concept where secular humanism has completely undermined the biblical teaching on the doctrine of man. Our culture teaches that man is able to make any choice without the effects of sin and says that our will is neither good nor evil, but a neutral. The image of someone with an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other where the man has to choose which side to listen to, from the vantage of his neutral will.
But the Bible clearly teaches that the whole of man was marred by the effects of the fall. Man’s soul, body, mind and will. Sin has ravaged us completely and utterly. Our entire being bears the scars of this sin profoundly. The Bible repeatedly says that we are in bondage to sin. The Bible also teaches that man is culpable for his choices. Man has a responsibility to make wise choices and works with God in the process of sanctification.
Verses discussing Man’s Responsibility and Culpability:
5. Ezekiel 18:20 “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”
6. Matthew 12:37 “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
7. John 9:41 “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’”
The term “Free will” is not found anywhere in scripture. But we can see verses that describe the very heart of man, the core of his will. We understand that man’s will is limited by his nature. Man cannot flap his arms and fly, however much he wills it. The problem isn’t with his will – it’s with man’s nature. Man was not created to fly like a bird. Because it is not his nature, he is not free to do it. So, what is man’s nature?
Man’s nature and free will
Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians of the early church described the state of man in relation to the state of his will:
1) Pre-Fall: Man was “able to sin” and “able not to sin” (posse peccare, posse non peccare)
2) Post-Fall: Man is “not able not to sin” (non posse non peccare)
3) Regenerated: Man is “able not to sin” (posse non peccare)
4) Glorified: Man will be “unable to sin” (non posse peccare)
The Bible is clear that man, in his natural state, is utterly and completely depraved. At the Fall of Man, man’s nature became fully and totally corrupt. Man is completely depraved. There is no good in him whatsoever. So, by his nature, man can not choose to do anything completely good. A depraved man can do something nice – like walk an elderly lady across the street. But he does it for selfish reasons. It makes him feel good about himself. It makes her think well of him. He doesn’t do it for the only truly GOOD reason, which is to bring Glory to Christ.
The Bible also makes it clear that Man, in his Post-Fall state is not free. He is a slave to sin. Man’s will in and of itself can not be free. This unregenerate man’s will be longs to his master, Satan. And when a Man has been Regenerated, he belongs to Christ. He is under a new owner. So even now, man’s will is not entirely free in the same regard as the secular humanists use the term.
8. John 3:19 “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”
9. Corinthians 2:14 “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
10. Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”
11. Mark 7:21-23 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
12. Romans 3:10-11 “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.”
13. Romans 6:14-20 “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.”
Would we choose God apart from God intervening?
If man is evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness (John 3:19), unable to understand spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14) a slave to sin (Rom 6:14-20), with a heart that is desperately sick (Jer 17:9) and is completely dead to sin (Eph 2:1) – he cannot choose God. God, by His grace and mercy, chose us.
14. Genesis 6:5 “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
15. Romans 3:10-19 “As it is written, ‘here is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God”
16. John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
17. Romans 9:16 “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”
18. 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
Do we have free will according to the Bible?
Man, in his natural state, post-Fall, is a slave to sin. He isn’t free. His will is in total bondage to sin. He is not free to choose God because He is a slave to sin. If you use the term “free will” in the way that our post Christian-culture and secular humanists do, then no, man does not have a will that is neutral and can make choices apart from his sinful nature or apart from God’s Sovereign will.
If you say that “freedom” refers to the fact that God sovereignly ordains every aspect of life and man may still make choices based on his voluntary choosing out of his preferences and not coercion and still making this choice within God’s pre-ordained decree – then yes, man has a free will. It all depends on your definition of “free.” We are not free to choose something that is outside of God’s will. Man is not free FROM God. We are free IN God. We are not free to make a choice that He has not Providentially decreed. Nothing happens by chance. God has allowed us to have preferences, and a unique personality that is able to make choices. We make choices based on our preferences, character traits, understandings and feelings. Our will is not even completely free from our own surroundings, body, or mind. The will is a slave to our nature. The two are not incompatible but work together in a beautiful melody that praises God.
John Calvin said in his book Bondage and Liberation of the Will, “We allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt, he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.”
19. John 8:31-36 “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. They answered Him, We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, You will become free? Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Does God and the angels have free will?
God’s will is not a libertarian free will. But His will is still free in that He is not coerced. His will is still bound by His nature. God cannot sin and thus He cannot will Himself to do something that is against His nature. This is why the argument “Can God create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it?” is self-refuting. God can’t because it is against His nature and character.
Angels too, they are able to make decisions that are free from coercion, but they are also bound by their nature. Good angels will make good choices, bad angels will make bad choices. In Revelation 12 we read about when Satan and his angels fell from heaven for their choice to rebel. They made a choice that was consistent with their character. God was not surprised at their choice because God knows all things.
20. Job 36:23 “Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?”
21. Titus 1:2 “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.”
22. 1 Timothy 5:2 “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”
Free Will vs Predestination
God in His sovereignty uses our choices to bring out His will. That’s because He has predestined everything to happen according to His will. How does this work, exactly? We can’t really know. Our minds are limited by our scope of time.
Unless God, through His mercy and grace, changes someone’s heart, they cannot choose to repent of their sins and accept Christ as his Lord and Savior.
1) God could have chosen for no one to go to Heaven. After all, He is totally Just. A Just God is not required to have Mercy.
2) God could have chosen for everyone to go to heaven, that’s Universalism and is a heresy. God does love His creation, but He is also Just.
3) God could have chosen to make His mercy available to everyone if they make the right choice
4) God could have chosen those to whom He would have mercy on.
Now, the first two options are not usually debated on. It is very clear through scripture that the firs two are not God’s plan. But the last two options are a highly debated subject. Is God’s salvation available to everyone or just a few?
God does not make unwilling men Christians. He does not drag them kicking and screaming into Heaven. God does not prevent the willing believers from attaining salvation either. It glorifies God to demonstrate His grace and His wrath. God is merciful, loving, and just. God chooses those to whom He will have mercy on. If salvation depended upon man – for even a fraction of it – then complete praise to God doesn’t make sense. In order for it to be all for the Glory of God, it has to be ALL God’s doing.
23. Acts 4:27-28 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
24. Ephesians 1:4 “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him in love.”
25. Romans 9:14-15 “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
In this beautiful melody we can hear several notes being played. God’s Sovereignty over all of creation and our responsibility to make wise choices. We can not fully understand how this works – but we can see in Scripture that it is so, and praise God for it.